Solemn song cycle honors memory of Vilna Ghetto victims

Though his stock in trade is the 12-tone scale, composer David Garner began his new song cycle by first absorbing the poetic verses of sorrow written during and about the Holocaust.

Set to the poetry of late Lithuanian-born Israeli poet Avrom Sutzkever, who was imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, Garner’s “Vilna Poems” receives its world premiere March 9 at the Jewish Music Festival in Berkeley.

Garner is fortunate to work with mezzo-soprano Lisa Delan and several world-class musicians for this world premiere: violinist Kay Stern, pianists Kristin Pankonin and Kathleen Tagg, clarinetist David Krakauer and cellist Matt Haimovitz.

David Garner

“I had the extreme good fortune of being able to write for those performers,” says the composer, who has been a teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music since 1979.

With titles such as “Execution” and “In the Jail Cell,” and with references to mass graves and ghostly villages emptied of Jews, the poems confront the nightmare Sutzkever faced every day.

“The dark wants to choke me: no doubt at all,” begins one. “Leaden mice gnaw whatever I’ve seen/I flail in the cell and sink between walls/Yearning for something human, known.”

Despite such imagery, certain passages of the poems engender an air of hope. From the final song:

“So what’s left to do at a moment like that/O my world of a thousand colors/Except/To gather into the satchel of the wind/That red beauty/And bring it home for evening bread?”

Garner seized on that flicker of hope in his score.

“What impacted me was the emotional effect that sprang from the images,” says Garner, “It’s [Sutzkever’s] wonderful way of never losing himself. Despite all the things that were done to him during the Holocaust, he was always there with eyes and ears.”

The idea for the piece originated in 2005 when San Francisco cabaret singer Sylvie Braitman introduced Garner to Sutzkever’s Yiddish poetry, in the hopes of setting it to music. The Israel Prize laureate died in 2010 at the age of 96.

Garner began musical sketches, but with Braitman’s death in 2006, the project faded. Some years later, he resurrected it for soprano Delan, whose forbears came from Vilna, a once–largely Jewish city claimed at various times by both Poland and Lithuania. Soon the musicians performing in the premiere wanted in, and Garner had his dream team.

Garner says he wanted to lock in on the cadences of Yiddish before writing a single note. Then he had to decide what he wanted audiences to feel as they listened. Finally, he picked up a pen.

“I knew it needed a klezmer feel,” he recalls. “I had one of the world’s foremost klezmer and classical clarinetist at my disposal, a cellist who is a master, a pianist I’ve worked with many times and [Delan], who speaks Yiddish. The performers could do virtually anything I wrote.”

What he ending up writing is not straight-up klezmer, Slavic nor Jewish per se, but richly tuneful and, says Garner, “respectful of the culture from which it came. I tried my best to emulate with imitating. If you start sounding derivative, that cheapens it.”

In addition to Yiddish, Garner has also written song cycles in Greek, Farsi, German, Japanese and French. His flair for languages and his love of all things classical — from Bach to modernists such as Ned Rorem — reveal Garner’s worldly approach. But he admits that as a comfortable American baby boomer, he cannot imagine the horror Sutzkever must have gone through during his days in the Vilna Ghetto.

“I was born in 1954,” he says. “I have no idea what he could have felt, but the humanity always shows through in the great poets. The human condition transcends the horrendous conditions.”